GONZALES — Reuben Ruiz said he loves the energy and enthusiasm of his junior high students, and he loves his job as a coach and physical education teacher at Gonzales Middle School.

“It keeps me young,” Ruiz said. “It’s the greatest profession in the world. It’s the only place you can get paid for playing all your life.”

But that’s only part of the reason Ruiz volunteers his Tuesday and Thursday mornings each summer in the gym and weight room at Gonzales Middle.

On July 14, Ruiz led calisthenics for about 30 middle school athletes, and by 9:30 a.m. — 30 minutes into their exercise regimen — they were all working up a good sweat and feeling the burn.

On any given training day, Ruiz and his assistant coaches — Michael St. Pierre and Steve Gilbert — will be in the gym leading a series of exercises meant to build strength, endurance and camaraderie.

In this particular exercise, the students lie on their backs, with their knees in the air, then extend their feet about 6 inches off the floor. On Ruiz’s count, they move their feet apart, then together, all while trying to maintain that 6-inch clearance off the ground.

About halfway through the set, the sounds of exertion fill the gym. As they move on to scissors — switching their legs back and forth just above the ground — those sounds get louder.

“Come on! Championship game! Championship game! You’ll know what you’re doing this for when you can make it through a full quarter!” Ruiz shouts above the groans.

Ruiz started the summer conditioning program five years ago, when he noticed his athletes had a hard time getting back into shape after the summer lull.

When they get back to school, he said, it’s hot, and if they’ve spent the entire summer in air-conditioning, it can be a shock to the system to get used to the heat.

While the program was started to keep basketball and football team players in shape during the summer, Ruiz said it is open and free to all Gonzales Middle students, whether they play a team sport or not.

Pretty soon, he began to get students in a variety of other team sports, and some students who don’t play any sport, but might be thinking about it.

Now, depending on the week, Ruiz has a steady attendance of anywhere from 30 to 40 students.

The program is strictly voluntary, Ruiz said, and is not required even of the athletes on his teams.

“But you can tell a big difference when they get back to school of those who have been coming and those that haven’t,” Ruiz said.

Word eventually started to spread, he said. If you want to do well, you’ll come to the summer practices.

After calisthenics, the students took a water break before heading over to the weight room. Rather than using disc weights on bars, Ruiz and St. Pierre matched each student with his own size-appropriate disc weight.

The lifting exercises are modified for the free weights, and gives the coaches a good opportunity to correct each student’s technique and posture as they perform the weight-lifting exercises.

St. Pierre floated through the group, adjusting each student’s weight load, and showing them how to get the most out of each exercise.

“You should feel the burn in your quads,” St. Pierre said while they worked on squats. “Don’t lean down. You’ll pull a quadricep that way.”

“Feeling the burn?” Ruiz joked. “You don’t have muscles to burn yet! You gotta get some muscles before you feel the burn.

“We’re getting stronger so we can push those boys from Lake (Middle School) around,” Ruiz laughed.

Good-natured ribbing is a big part of the workout, as Ruiz’s comments send the boys into periodic giggling fits.

“Come on, you’ve got to be able to push a truck off the line by yourself,” Ruiz said.

“It’s got to be a truck?” one student answered. “It can’t be like a Prius or something?”

For all their complaints of exhaustion after the workout was complete, they found a new flood of energy when Ruiz told them they’d get a special treat after practice — some time to play basketball.

“They don’t look so tired anymore,” Ruiz said. “We want to give them some conditioning, but we try to make it fun, too.”